Despite Strong Economy, Need For Pantry Continues To Grow

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Hunger

Dermot Shea adds to a pile of various hot and cold cereals. Despite the strong economy, the number of clients obtaining food at the Family Pantry is up 16 percent this year. KAT SZMIT PHOTO

Last summer, an octogenarian client at the Family Pantry of Cape Cod reminisced about her days working as a bagger and cashier at a large local supermarket chain.

After telling her customers what they owed for their groceries she would ask, “Would you like to make a contribution to the Family Pantry?” Smiling, she would add, “You never know. You may need it someday yourself.”

“When I said that,” she recalled one day while picking up food at the pantry, “I never thought I’d be the one who would need it. I’m here to feed my husband and me. He has diabetes and a heart condition. He is angry and he takes it out on me. But I don’t let it get to me.”

One-third of the clients served by the Family Pantry are seniors. Another third are children.

In 2017, 1.8 million pounds of food worth $3.2 million was distributed to 9,300 hungry Cape Codders. Despite all the good news about a strong national economy, the number of “food insecure” people on Cape Cod is up 16 percent this year over last year; in 2017 the number was up 15 percent over 2016. One in 10 residents of Barnstable County is “food insecure.” Through the generosity of individuals, the business community and grants, the Family Pantry has always met its demands.

“Everyone tries to pitch in if they can,” says Christine Menard, the Family Pantry’s executive director. “There are a lot of folks coming through here. The need just keeps growing.”

The Family Pantry follows federal poverty guidelines. That means that a single person earning less than $22,459 a year is eligible for the pantry. A two-person household must earn less than $30,451; a three-person household less than $38,443; and a four-person household less than $46,435.

Contradicting the general perception that clients of food banks are unemployed, “60 percent of the clients have one or two working members,” Menard says.

The Cape’s challenging seasonal economy contributes to hunger on Cape Cod. In the winter, many workers hours are cut. Also contributing to hunger is the high cost of Cape Cod housing. While some people live in “winter rentals,” they have to move out during the summer when the cost of one week’s rent is roughly equivalent to one month’s rent in the winter.

“So then how do you pay the rent?” Menard asks. “You can’t make your rent and eat, so they end up coming here.”

When you live on the edge of poverty, one nudge such as an unexpected car repair or an illness can throw you over the cliff.

One of the pantry’s clients, now in her mid-60s, worked for 21 years for a discount retail chain. She had several responsible positions – opening up the store, working as a secretary in the office, and even doing “men’s jobs.” When she developed a painful intestinal disease, she had to miss a lot of work. Eventually her employer said, “Don’t come back until you’re better.” She was never able to return to work. She is now on disability and pays $300 a month in health insurance. The food she obtains at the pantry sustains both her and her elderly mother, with whom she lives.

“The first day I came to the pantry I cried my eyes out,” she says. “Now I was one of ‘them.’” But after two years her attitude has changed, and she has become friendly with other clients when she meets them in line picking up food.

Proper nutrition spills into all aspects of a person’s life. People who eat better are healthier and spend less time in the hospital than malnourished people. Proper nutrition contributes to healthy hearts and to preventing diabetes. The Family Pantry does not hand out what Menard calls “bellyfillers” — unhealthy high-fat foods. The pantry buys fish from the Cape Cod Fisherman’s Alliance all year long. Garden fresh vegetables from the pantry’s own garden supplement fresh vegetables put into each bag. Groceries are packed with an eye toward balanced nutrition.

Despite people going hungry, “there’s still a ton of people who don’t know we exist,” Menard says. If your family is hungry, go to the Family Pantry. You need to provide an address; if you are homeless, that is acceptable, too. An adult needs to provide a photo ID for the family. A birth certificate or Mass Health card is needed for children on the account.

It takes five minutes to register. “It’s very simple to come here,” Menard says, adding that people always leave with food.

“I’m sure that this organization would not be as successful without the support of donations and aid from the many Cape Codders who give their time, money and hearts throughout the year,” a client says. “I give my thanks to them all.”

The Chronicle’s 15th Annual Helping Neighbors Fund drive is winding down. Help raise $60,000 for the Family Pantry. Click here to donate, or make your check payable to The Family Pantry, 133 Queen Anne Rd., Harwich, MA 02645, writing “Helping Neighbors” in the memo line. Donations to the non-profit Family Pantry are tax deductible. The Chronicle will publish a list of donors each week.